Like many other innocent prisoners, I've dreamed of the day when an open-minded prosecutor would review my innocence claims, without bias or unfairness. Innocent prisoners have all types of innocence claims: new evidence, DNA evidence, witness recantation, prosecutorial misconduct, and ineffective counsel claims. The problem is that most of our prosecutors fight us tooth and nail. Rather than trying to see if our claims have merit, they simply want to maintain our wrongful convictions.
Almost two years ago, Kenneth Thompson was running to become Brooklyn's District Attorney. Not only did Mr. Thompson promise to be hard on crime, he also promised to reexamine the cases of those who claimed to be innocent. Mr. Thompson eventually won, and, true to his word, his office has reviewed a large number of cases. This investigation has already lead to 14 people being exonerated -- with dozens of other cases still being reviewed.
Nearly 1,700 people nationwide have been exonerated of serious crimes since 1989 -- 141 of them in New York. That's not counting the many who are still in prison awaiting justice. But most innocent prisoners will never see the justice they seek without a fair and unbiased prosecutor.
Last month, Prosecutor Thompson held a summit at Brooklyn Law School explicitly focused on strategies for overturning wrongful convictions and opening more "conviction review units" in prosecutors' offices. Dozens of prosecutors, defense attorneys and advocates from across the country attended. Thompson discussed conviction review units and strategies for exonerating those wrongfully convicted.
Just as you have prosecutors who adopt these reforms, you also have prosecutors who are resistant and feel that our justice system is already perfect -- totally ignoring the record number of exonerations this past year. As Prosecutor Thompson said, "prosecutors can't be brought kicking and screaming" to these reforms. We need better processes to overturn wrongful convictions and prevent more from happening in the first place, and prosecutors must get on board to make this happen.
David Angel, an Assistant District Attorney with Santa Clara County in California said, "We all know the criminal justice system has problems in it. I mean, nobody can deny that." He continued: "So the question is, as a prosecutor, are we going to be at the table leading those efforts for reform and looking at issues that have come?"
Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project stated: "There's a way to have a cooperative process post-conviction where you conduct a really intensive review and then you try to learn from errors to fix the system."
Jeffrey Deskovic, who created the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice after spending sixteen years in prison for crimes he never committed, voiced his enthusiasm: "For those who have wrongfully spent time in prison, hearing prosecutors sound sympathetic is encouraging," he said. "It's a concrete reason to have hope and inspiration that their day of justice can occur."
Finally, Michael McMahon, a candidate for Staten Island District Attorney, asserted that wrongful convictions "should be treated with the utmost seriousness" because they "erode confidence in the judicial system and shatter the trust between law enforcement and the community they serve."
These are just a few statements from the summit. But, although there were people in attendance from all over the country who supported the needed changes, there were also those who were adamant that no change is needed.
With summits such as this one, along with district attorneys such as Kenneth Thompson who are committed to exonerating the innocent, we can make the necessary reforms to place safeguards in our broken justice system. This is a breath of fresh air for innocent prisoners all around the country. Why? Maybe our stories will finally be heard, whereas, for the most part, our injustice has so often been ignored.
I would like to commend Prosecutor Thompson for his work and his stance to get other prosecutors to do what's right for innocent prisoners. Innocent prisoners as a whole would like to commend all the prosecutors who seek justice and not wrongful convictions.
Lorenzo Johnson served 16 and a half years of a life-without-parole sentence, from 1995 to 2012, when the Third Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruled there was legally insufficient evidence for his conviction. He remained free for four months, after which the US Supreme Court unanimously reinstated the conviction and ordered Lorenzo back to prison to resume the sentence. With the help of Michael Wiseman, Esq., The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, The Campaign to Free Lorenzo Johnson, and others, he is continuing to fight for his freedom. Email him or sign his petition and learn more at: http://www.freelorenzojohnson.org/sign-the-petition.html.